SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Toward the end of the regular season, Brian Cashman said Greg Bird and Tyler Austin will compete next spring for the starting job at first base.
But, the Yankees’ GM said this week, there is a preferred candidate.
“Bird’s got the higher ceiling, so if he’s playing at his best potential, hopefully he wins that job,” Cashman said as the annual GM meetings that started Monday.
But that doesn’t mean the fix is in.
The Yankees’ preference last spring was for Gary Sanchez to win the backup catcher’s job, but he flopped and was outperformed by Austin Romine.
“If Tyler Austin takes it, whatever, we went through that stuff in spring training last year with Gary Sanchez with such a high ceiling and Romine came in and earned his right to be the backup the whole year,” Cashman said. “So we’ll see what happens. But on paper Bird is the guy that we hope we were going to get back to the full levels he was before the surgery.”
Bird, of course, at this time last year had grand plans for 2016. He came up in August 2015 and immediately looked comfortable at first base and at the plate, posting a .261/.343/.529 slash line in 46 games, hitting 11 homers in 157 at-bats.
But a lingering shoulder issue necessitated surgery in February 2016, costing Bird the entire season.
And it’s for that reason Bird, who turns 24 on Wednesday, wasn’t about to spike the football when told of Cashman’s comments.
“It’s what I’ve always worked for, but I think in this game you always have to earn it and you just never know what’s going to happen,” Bird said Monday night before an Arizona Fall League game as the DH for the Scottsdale Scorpions. “I was going to go into this year  trying to make the team and obviously this [the shoulder] set me back a little bit.”
Bird has been strictly a DH in the AFL. He entered Tuesday with a .190/.329/.345 slash line with one homer and nine RBIs, struggling a bit to “shake the rust off.” On Wednesday, Bird will begin throwing to bases.
“That’s like the last check-it-off thing,” Bird said of his rehab process.
He has not been limited otherwise and expects to be ready to “hit the ground running” for spring training.
“I’m confident for sure, I’m excited,” Bird said. “I’m ready to get back in that clubhouse with those guys because that’s what I’ve been working for my whole career and that’s what I was most excited for coming into this year. That was the hardest thing [being injured], was not being able to be there.”
Bird watched from afar last season as the Yankees’ youth movement officially took off, led by Sanchez’s otherworldly performance in August and most of September.
“It’s awesome, it’s unbelievable,” Bird said. “We want to be where the Cubs and Indians were, plain and simple, and I think everyone understands that and everyone’s working toward that, so it’s an exciting time for us. There’s a lot of work that has to be done obviously, but everyone’s excited. I think the veteran guys are too. I was just talking to Mac [Brian McCann] yesterday. It’s just a really cool time for us.”